If Done Right, New Agriculture Standards Could Improve Vermont’s Water Quality

Dec 23, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is revising Vermont’s agricultural standards. The new Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) represent an important opportunity to transition to a sustainable agricultural system that improves water quality. Fostering environmentally sensitive practices is important because many lakes and rivers across the state are polluted, in part, due to agricultural runoff.

Cows_Vermont_ShutterstockThe RAPs amend the current policies by adding new requirements for small farms, excluding livestock from waterways, and broadening farmers’ commitments to implementing conservation practices, such as buffers and cover crops. While the RAPs are an important step forward, more is needed to address Vermont’s polluted waters.

In a joint letter to the Agency, CLF has encouraged a statewide transition to sustainable agriculture and strengthening of the RAPs. Sustainable farming integrates environmental health, economic profitability, and social justice by avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizer, supporting biodiverse farming, and promoting organic and value-added production. These practices will help protect Vermont’s water resources as well as ensure compliance with environmental laws.

In our comments on the RAPs, CLF has also reiterated Vermont’s legal commitments to clean water. Earlier this year, Vermont enacted a law focused on improving water quality by addressing, among other land uses, farming. This law calls on the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to control all agricultural activities harmful to water. The federal Clean Water Act also compels Vermont to stop the degradation of its lakes and rivers. It’s important that the RAPs get it right by satisfying these legal requirements.

CLF is continuing to fight for clean water in Vermont. Farming is critical to our culture, economy, and way of life, but agriculture and clean water do not have to be in conflict. Keep following to learn more about CLF’s role in improving water quality in Vermont.

The Status Quo Won’t Work for Vermont’s Waters

Nov 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This past summer, there was significant attention paid to the gallons of sewage released into Vermont waterways from wastewater treatment facilities. To keep track of these overflow events, the VT Department of Environmental Conservation (the Department) has created a Waste Water Inventory that charts how much sewage is discharged from which facility on what day. However, many of these data points are best guesses since many facilities lack appropriate monitoring systems.

Many of these overflow events occur after heavy rains because industrial wastewater, domestic sewage, and rainwater are collected in the same pipe. Increased rainfall can overwhelm these combined sewer systems causing the release of wastewater directly into nearby water bodies. Wastewater can contain untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, as well as debris and it contributes to the already-high phosphorus loads in Lake Champlain.

The Department has recently published a draft policy to manage these combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. While this draft represents a much-needed revision – the last CSO policy was established in 1990 – it falls short of the goal of the Clean Water Act that “the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters be eliminated.”

The policy allows polluters to continue to pollute. While the Department has regulated CSOs (ineffectually) for more than 25 years, the draft policy proposes schedules of up to another 25 years to implement control plans. Moreover, because the Department has not effectively monitored CSOs for the past two decades the amount of sewage actually delivered to Vermont water bodies is still unknown.

Vermont’s ailing waters can’t afford to wait another 25 years for the Department to catch up with the law. We all have a right to waters that are safe for swimming, drinking, and fishing. That’s why CLF is fighting to strengthen policies like this one that disguise the status quo as forward action. Read our comments on the Department’s proposed policy and sign up here to stay up to date on this and all of CLF’s work to defend New England’s environment.

See for Yourself How Polluted Stormwater Reaches Mashapaug Pond

Sep 30, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

It’s raining in Providence right now. And that means water is running across the city’s rooftops, roads, and parking lots, picking up pollutants like oil and animal waste, and depositing them into water bodies like Mashapaug Pond. The term for this polluted rainwater is stormwater runoff, and it’s one of the reasons Mashapaug Pond has been unfit for swimming and fishing for decades.

I’ve told you before about CLF’s lawsuit seeking to fix this problem by getting EPA to curb pollution from stormwater runoff, as the Clean Water Act requires.  Now, though, I’d like to show you what this runoff looks like.

This morning I visited Mashapaug Pond and took some videos of water running into the pond from the industrial park on its northwest shore. Below, you can watch them and I’ll tell you a little bit about what you’re seeing.

First, some of the rainwater runs across the rooftops of the broad, flat buildings in the industrial park. The water pours off the roof from downspouts onto a paved area behind the buildings and right next to the pond. It flows across the pavement, through a narrow bit of greenery, and into the pond.

Here’s a closer view of the water running across the pavement toward the pond:

Elsewhere in the industrial park, water runs across parking lots, driveways, and roads, and into storm drains:

After water enters these drains, it joins with water from other storm drains and surges into the pond through outfalls like this one (located at a public park just next to the industrial park):

Just imagine how much pollution is being carried along by that rushing water into this one fragile pond in Rhode Island – then multiply that by the thousands of rivers, lakes, and ponds throughout New England and you begin to understand the scale of the stormwater runoff problem and its impact on the health of our waters.

This is not the way things have to work. Here in Rhode Island, if EPA lets the owners of the commercial and industrial property around Mashapaug Pond know that they need stormwater-discharge permits, then those property owners will have to take steps to clean up or eliminate their runoff to the pond. And this is exactly what we’re asking EPA to do with our lawsuit.

So, now that you’ve had a chance to see for yourself how polluted stormwater reaches Mashapaug Pond, please join me and my CLF colleagues in telling EPA: now is the time to do something about stormwater pollution in Mashapaug Pond.

To learn more about the impact of stormwater on Mashapaug Pond, watch my short video here:

Blue-Green Algae Causes Burlington Beach Closure

Jul 16, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Monday’s closure of two popular beaches in Burlington is a stark reminder of why Vermont’s focus on water quality is so timely and important. Sightings of blue-green algae along the Burlington shoreline prompted low alert warnings last Friday and led to beach closures in the area earlier this week.

A quick response to these sightings is vital since certain types of blue-green algae produce toxins that are harmful to people and their pets. Exposure can result in skin irritations, liver damage, and neurological disease. Large blooms of blue-green algae also negatively impact the environment by depleting oxygen levels in the surrounding water when they decay – killing fish and other aquatic plants. .

These blooms form during the summer months of long hours of sunlight and warm water temperature in lakes and ponds with excess nutrients like phosphorus. The problem is especially acute on Lake Champlain, where the high concentration of phosphorus comes largely from human activity in the watershed, including stormwater runoff from developed areas, agricultural practices, and wastewater treatment facilities.

Water advocates, including Ben and Jerry’s and The Waterwheel Foundation, have joined with CLF to reduce the impact of these human activities on the lake.

This summer, Vermonters are particularly attuned to water quality challenges following the passage of a clean water bill earlier this year. While not perfect, the legislation is a significant step towards reducing the high levels of phosphorus that plague our waterways . As new programs are put in place, CLF will continue to negotiate tight controls for pollutants in Lake Champlain and across the state.

Unfortunately, beach closures like the ones in Burlington this week aren’t limited to Vermont. CLF has recently filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island to remedy the regular closure of some of the state’s most popular beaches. Water pollution is a regional challenge, and CLF will continue to fight for clean, healthy waters throughout New England.

Portsmouth to Proceed with Long-Awaited, New Sewage Treatment Plant

Jun 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Portsmouth, New Hampshire, City Council recently reaffirmed its commitment to build a new sewage treatment plant at the site of the present antiquated facility on Peirce Island. Completion of the long-awaited upgrade may still be a few years away, though it could have happened sooner if the City had elected to shift its plans to a location at the Pease Tradeport. But the decision to rebuild at Peirce Island is still good news for the Piscataqua River and Great Bay estuary, which can’t afford further delay.Google PI

Portsmouth’s current sewage plant at Peirce Island is still failing to meet one of the most basic requirements of the Clean Water Act – so-called “secondary treatment” to reduce suspended solids and other pollution. While EPA has provided a ramp-up period to achieve that standard, until the upgrade is completed, it continues to exceed Clean Water Act discharge levels by 475 tons per year of total suspended solids and 877 tons per year of biological oxygen-demanding pollution. And, the plant’s potentially high discharges of bacteria and viruses have resulted in the closure of the shellfish beds in Little Harbor and along the Atlantic coast south to Odiorne Point. Upgrading Peirce Island to modern standards, and addressing these and other pollutants, is critical to restoring the health of our estuary.

We’ve worked for years to ensure progress at Portsmouth’s Peirce Island sewage treatment plant – one of the largest controllable sources of pollution in the estuary. We’re pleased to see the City Council avoiding the further delays that would have resulted from a last-minute change of plan, and we’ll continue to work to ensure the project stays on track. As towns like Exeter and Newmarket make progress upgrading their sewage treatment facilities, it’s important that the Seacoast’s largest city does the same.

EPA Video Highlights Long Creek Restoration Project in Maine

May 21, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a new video telling the story of the restoration of Maine’s Long Creek, which winds through South Portland’s busy Maine Mall area and empties into Casco Bay.

Before CLF took action seven years ago, polluted stormwater would drain off of the Maine Mall area’s many paved surfaces – like parking lots and flat roofs – and flow into Long Creek, killing aquatic life. In 2008, CLF petitioned EPA and asked it to issue a permit requiring area businesses to clean up the pollution. EPA issued the permit, and since then landowners, municipalities, and other stakeholders have worked together to form the Long Creek Restoration Partnership. Under the permit, property owners have completed a number of restoration projects, including repaving an area of roadway with porous material to allow rainwater to filter through the earth and planting buffers between parking lots and streams. Recently, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection reissued the General Permit. Read about the Long Creek Restoration Project and about CLF’s work on Long Creek, and watch the video below to see how a polluted creek can be restored and the surrounding area beautified.

Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

In February, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act and requiring large, privately owned stormwater polluters to obtain permits for their dirty discharge.

EPA’s responsibility is clear: to ensure that our waterways are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. The agency’s failure to require polluters to control their runoff puts the Charles’ water quality at risk and places an unfair burden on cities, towns, and, ultimately, taxpayers, to foot the bill for managing stormwater pollution.

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

CLF is asking the EPA to hold polluters accountable for unregulated stormwater discharge, which is harming the Charles River. Photo: Charles River Watershed Association.

In part due to improvements in water pollution, the Charles River today is an incredible recreational and ecological resource flowing through the heart of Boston and surrounding communities. On any given summer day, you’ll see scores of people sailing, boating, kayaking, and fishing its waters. But the reality is, for all the progress made in cleaning up this iconic river in recent decades, significant threats to its health remain, including polluted stormwater runoff.

Along the Charles’ 80-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor you’ll find thousands of acres of strip malls, office parks, and other industrial development – along with flat roofs and huge parking lots (80% of the land area in Greater Boston is paved). All those impermeable surfaces add up to trouble when it rains or, as is happening now, snow melts.

Back when the Charles flowed through a largely natural landscape, that rain and snowmelt would have been absorbed by the ground and filtered of pollutants long before it drained into the river. Today, though, stormwater rushes off those mirror-like impermeable surfaces, picking up debris, fertilizer, and other toxic pollution along the way. The result: a contaminated soup of dirty water draining into the Charles and other rivers, lakes, and streams across New England.

The worst part of the problem? EPA not only knows who the biggest privately owned stormwater dischargers are, it also has the legal authority to hold them accountable. In fact, the Clean Water Act requires known stormwater polluters to obtain a permit for their discharge. But EPA has failed to uphold this basic responsibility.

By not enforcing the law, EPA is leaving cash-strapped cities and towns – and all of us as taxpayers – on the hook for the costs of this damaging pollution. And those costs are big. One of the most harmful pollutants swept into the river with stormwater is phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the water can lead to massive blue-green algae outbreaks, which are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife. This is just one reason why the Charles is so often subject to closures and advisories for fish contamination and unsafe swimming and boating.

The bottom line is that stormwater pollution is hurting the river, the wildlife that depend on it to be healthy, and the communities that pay when it’s not. A successful outcome to this lawsuit will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits. Those permits would not only control the stormwater pollution those businesses can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.

The Charles River will never truly be healthy until stormwater pollution – and the industrial offenders responsible for it – are brought under control. It’s time for EPA to step up and enforce the law and set the Charles on the final road to recovery once and for all.

For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”

CLF Bringing Suit to Address Stormwater in Rhode Island

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago, CLF initiated a lawsuit that seeks to require EPA to do its job under the Clean Water Act and clean up stormwater pollution in Rhode Island. This lawsuit has the potential to be a very big deal.

What is stormwater pollution?

When heavy rain falls and snow melts, water runs across paved surfaces, picks up nasty pollutants like oil, feces, and heavy metals, and eventually flows into Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers, the Narragansett Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. Rhode Island is densely populated, has a lot of paved surfaces – about 12% of the state, in fact – and there’s not a spot in this tiny, coastal state that’s far from water. This means that there’s a lot of polluted runoff flowing into a lot of water bodies in Rhode Island. Because of stormwater pollution, many of Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers are not fit for swimming, fishing, or even serving as wildlife habitat.


Mashapaug Pond is so polluted that it’s closed to fishing and swimming. CLF’s suit is a critical step in helping restore the ailing pond to health.

That sounds bad.

It is! And it’s worse some places than others. For example, stormwater pollution causes algae growth in Providence’s Mashapaug Pond, choking aquatic life and – because of highly toxic blue-green algae – making the pond unfit for human contact.

On Aquidneck Island, stormwater pollution causes high bacteria levels in Bailey’s Brook. The polluted water from the Brook flows through North Easton Pond and South Easton Pond and ends up at Newport’s very popular First Beach. As a result, the water at First Beach is rarely clean and the state Department of Health must close the beach several times each year during the busy summer season. These situations aren’t unique; other water bodies near Mashapaug Pond and on Aquidneck Island suffer similar harm as a result of stormwater pollution.

How do we know all this?

In legally required studies and analyses, Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has documented just how stormwater is harming Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies. In particular, DEM has concluded that these water bodies have been damaged by stormwater runoff from heavily paved commercial and industrial properties. EPA has formally approved each of these DEM studies after careful consideration.

So what’s the lawsuit all about?

When EPA approved the DEM studies for Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies, it legally determined that stormwater runoff from commercial and industrial properties was harming these water bodies. Under the Clean Water Act, this kind of determination means that these commercial and industrial dischargers must apply for permits for their stormwater discharges. And under EPA’s own Clean Water Act regulations, the agency must notify the dischargers that they need permits.

EPA hasn’t done this. CLF is suing to make sure EPA does its job.

That all sounds kind of abstract.

CLF’s success in this case will result in major and very tangible benefits. When commercial and industrial stormwater dischargers enter the Clean Water Act’s permit program, they have to take steps to clean up their stormwater discharges. In Rhode Island, this stormwater permitting program is managed – and managed well – by DEM. CLF’s lawsuit would likely result in hundreds of new dischargers entering the stormwater permitting program.

This means much less pollution flowing into water bodies like Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, and North Easton Pond. The long-term result will be swimmable, fishable waters that provide suitable habitat for wildlife. And that would be a very big deal.


For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”


Apr 9, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Riding the single chair ski lift to 3637′ summit of General Stark’s Mountain at Mad River Glen is among my life’s great pleasures. The lift pulls you ever upward through the forest at treetop height. You sit comfortably in solitude soaking it all in. The experience imparts a sense of serenity that competes with the giddy anticipation of the long, fast descent that awaits. The best moment comes when your chair attains the elevation that affords you a sweeping panoramic view over the spine of the Green Mountains to the shimmering shores of Lake Champlain that lie beyond, stretching northward in the distance to the Canadian border. It is a compelling visual reminder that “The Lake Starts Here.”


Watershed Perspective: Lake Champlain seen in the background from the summit of General Stark’s Mountain

When the snow melts it flows downhill into one of the many Vermont rivers that feed into Lake Champlain. These rivers and the mountains, forests, farms, and developed areas that drain into them are the Lake’s watershed. Credit for the clever hashtag #LakeStartsHere goes to our angler amigos at Lake Champlain International who are working in concert with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to raise “watershed” awareness among Vermonters and our visitors through a contest featuring photos like the one at right. The idea is to help people make connections between the snow they ski on in the winter and the water they drink, swim, fish, and boat on in the summer; as the seasons turn one becomes the other.

Watershed awareness is sorely needed at this critical moment in the history of Lake Champlain cleanup. While the Lake is a drinking water source for nearly 200,000 people and a recreation destination for thousands more, it is too often out of sight out of mind for many Vermonters who do not live in communities that touch the Lake’s shores. Yet the polluted runoff from farms, logging sites, roads, parking lots, industrial sites, downtowns, strip malls, and housing developments along with the polluted wastewater from those upstream communities all contribute to the clean water crisis (e.g., toxic blue-green algae blooms, noxious weed growth, fish kills) facing one of the nation’s largest freshwater lakes.

The Clean Water Act and Vermont’s own state water quality laws require everyone to do their part for cleanup. The laws are based on the wise premise, beautifully articulated by poet Wendell Berry, that we must do unto our downstream neighbors as we would have our upstream neighbors do unto us. At some point we all live downstream and, more importantly, we all benefit from clean water.

Fortunately, many of the pollution control measures Vermonters must undertake to clean up Lake Champlain will benefit local waterways and community bottom lines too.

  • When upstream farmers prevent manure runoff and soil erosion they not only reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing downstream to Lake Champlain, they also keep water free of harmful bacteria that can make local swimming holes unsafe and reduce sediment that clogs fish habitat.
  • When municipalities upgrade culverts and line ditches along their gravel roads they reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediments and also reduce the amount of money spent on road maintenance over the long term.
  • When real estate developers install “green stormwater infrastructure” at shopping plazas and housing developments, they reduce overall flows of phosphorus runoff flowing downstream to the Lake and at the same time reduce flash flooding risks in local rivers and streams caused by the artificial concentration of runoff from an overpaved landscape.
  • When ski areas maintain or restore robust buffers on high mountain streams, they minimize the local erosion hazards that result from clearing
    trails and reduce pollutants that flow downstream.

In the wake of CLF’s precedent-setting lawsuit and settlement with EPA seeking a truly effective and comprehensive cleanup framework for Lake Champlain, the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and EPA officials are wrestling with the final details of a new plan. CLF is playing an active watchdog role to ensure that Governor Shumlin, the state legislature, and EPA officials live up to their responsibilities under our clean water laws by holding all contributing pollution sources accountable to do their part. If and when they do, we can launch a new watershed-wide photo contest: #ACleanLakeStartsHere.